Friday, May 22, 2015

Captain Propaganda, the First Avenger

In 1937, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis identified seven distinct characteristics of militant propaganda. Marvel’s Captain America hits all seven, including Name Calling, Bandwagon Appeals, and Glittering Generality. That said, it’s important to note that calling something “propaganda” doesn’t imply it’s wrong. The original comic book began as wartime propaganda, a necessary message. Indeed, Captain America provides a remarkable example of how top-down propaganda creates shared identity in mass society, and translates into real action.

Some of this movie’s propaganda appeals are so blatantly obvious that they don’t demand much discussion. The image of a big-shouldered hero in star-spangled leotards punching out Adolf Hitler blatantly displays the IPA’s principle of Glittering Generality, an appeal so vague but highly valued that it doesn’t require reason. And pitting that hero against a leering, monstrous Death’s Head (Tötenkampf) villain uses the exact opposite appeal, Name Calling, or refuting an opponent by personal abuse.

Other appeals are more subtle. The small-statured Steve Rogers, who proves himself worthy of heroism because of high character and moral fiber, channels common American beliefs in ordinary people achieving greatness through superior integrity. Americans want to believe our achievements reflect innate qualities we’ve cultivated through temperament and grit. We associate moral superiority with people like ourselves, which is fine. If abused, though, this belief in bootstrap glory represents a propaganda appeal called Plain Folks.

American leaders from liberal Harry Truman to arch-conservative Sarah Palin have pitched themselves as worthy of mass respect owing to their humble, working-class origins. Sometimes this is apt; both Truman and Palin began as lower-middle-class pedestrians, and worked their way up society’s ladder. But Thomas Jefferson, that slave-holding plantation owner, doffed his powdered wig and rode his own horse to appear “just folks,” an undisguised lie. Plain Folks appeals always require deeper, more skeptical scrutiny.

Chris Evans as Captain America
So that’s Glittering Generality, Name Calling, and Plain Folks. We witness the fourth technique, Bandwagon, when Senator Brandt redirects Steve Rogers into selling war bonds. Though an undoubted waste of Rogers’ potential, he quickly discovers his skill getting crowds oriented toward his desired goals. By convincing audiences that everyone next to them will buy bonds, Rogers effectively convinces people they must buy to fit in. As bandwagons usually are, though, Rogers ultimately finds his dissatisfying.

Psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson report research demonstrating that the most persuasive propaganda is that which we sell ourselves. Encouraged to consider new ways of seeing common situations, we internalize the ways we create, often inadvertently consuming someone else’s message. This happens when Rogers plays Captain America so long, he eventually must actually take action to preserve internal stability. As he says while rescuing American soldiers: “I’ve knocked out Adolf Hitler over 200 times.”

This, however, represents the fifth technique: Card Stacking. Like a magician saying “pick any card,” this technique represents the illusion of autonomy in a tightly controlled environment. Captain America has no strategic training, no field experience, no qualifications for combat whatsoever. He simply believes the message he’s successfully sold everyone else, because it’s his chief input. He thinks he’s picking his own card; he cannot perceive how somebody else picked it for him long ago.

Cap also demonstrates the sixth technique, testimonial. When we admire or respect somebody, that person’s endorsement has significant persuasive power. People Cap respects keep extoling his personal virtues: Bucky laments Steve’s weakness, but talks up his character. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark commend Cap’s fighting spirit. After numerous vaudeville bond-selling showcases, Cap’s own message has become a form of celebrity endorsement. But the people he respect manage to sell him himself until he believes them.

Having rescued the soldiers, Cap applies the final technique: transfer. When something admirable graces the presence of something… well… else, admirable qualities rub off. Consider political candidates posing before the flag, or celebrities visiting war-ravaged countries. Cap finds the Howling Commandos sitting in a pub, indulging their self-pity. But by simply sitting with them, he transfers some component of his heroism onto them. Would a telegram have convinced them to attack Hydra after escaping? Doubtful.

We’re accustomed to considering propaganda something offensive. Its association with Stalinism, fascism, and the Bush Doctrine, has tainted the word. But its techniques, if applied to unifying populations against an unmitigated evil, have potential to unite disparate peoples toward shared goals. Propaganda can deceive, or it can unify. The difference is in good followers: Hydra soldiers are passive, the Howling Commandos are thoughtful and engaged. The techniques are neutral; only people give propaganda moral implications.

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